The January Thaw

January 16, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Once upon a time, during my mis-spent years in high school, I was an avid television watcher. These days (not counting news and sports), I stay awake for about three to four hours of television per week. (I have a habit of lying down on the sofa to watch some program, then waking up two hours later. Much as I love the Discovery and History channels, they almost always induce a nap.) When I was 12 or 13, I probably watched that much per day. Some of my TV choices were not mainstream, like Star Trek (which, in the late '70s and early '80s, was still considered to be a "cult" show), Doctor Who, and The Prisoner. I was a regular viewer of Mystery! and Masterpiece Theater - not normal for a 12-year old. Then there were the usual suspects: Magnum P.I., Dallas, Dynasty, and a bunch of other programs whose names escape my memory. I even watched a daytime soap opera for a couple of years. No names, but consider which one targeted teen audiences circa 1980, and you'll be able to figure it out.

During those years, the best months for TV were September, October, November, February, March, and May. The holidays interfered with December, and January/April (and June-August) were repeat months. In a way, January was the worst TV month. Most of the shows were repeating, and we were stuck in the house during the coldest nights of the year. With no computers or VCRs, it was watch repeats or read a book. I did a lot of both.

This year, however, January turns out to be the best month of TV for someone like me. The only two shows I consider to be "appointment TV" (meaning that I'll record them if I'm not going to be home to watch) return this month with new episodes: Battlestar Galactica and 24. The former is, in my opinion, one of the best written shows on television. (Put it alongside Veronica Mars and The Shield - I don't watch either, but they are well thought-of by people I respect.) 24 is a great thrill-ride - the equivalent of James Bond for the small screen. We don't expect realism from 007, nor do we mind the contrivances. It's similar for the world of Jack Bauer. We're along for the ride. And you have to admire a program that kills off two long running characters during the first 20 minutes of its season premiere (as 24 did Sunday night). Battlestar Galactica shows an equal willingness to shake up the status quo. It's one of those programs that gets better with each new episode. Maybe some day it will jump the shark, but that day appears to be far off.

Movies in January generally suck. Let's be frank about that. We go to see movies around this time of the year because we're bored or looking for something to do, not because there's anything out there really worth seeing. Movie studios have caught onto this. Half the films opening in January don't have press screenings, and some that do are limiting their exposure (at least two major releases had their screenings last year, in the middle of the Christmas rush). If you have been wondering why I'm posting so many reviews on Fridays and Saturdays, it's because I haven't gotten a chance to see the films until they open. Thus far, I have spent $25 on movie tickets this month, and I'm not done.

With theatrical fare in January being so lackluster, that makes new episodes of shows like Battlestar Galactica and 24 all the more appealing. Why go out in the bitter cold to see something not worth the price of admission when it's possible to stay home, snuggle by the fire, and view something worth spending the time on? (And, by using a DVR, commercials can be reduced to the minor inconvenience of hitting the FF button.) So, although I have given up on Lost and am not as bullish about House as I was a year ago (I watch it if I'm home, but don't record it), at least I can be enthusiastic about a couple of shows. And that's more than can be said about most of the releases being dumped into multiplexes this January.